This August, Bijoy Harpal, a resident of Bolangir, Odisha, received a call from Chennai’s Little Hearts Home with news about his long-lost aunt. Maya (45), a distant relative, had gone missing from her home in Jharkhand’s Jamshedpur almost 13 years ago.
“She was living with her father and brother in Jamshedpur in 2006 when she went missing. We had assumed that she was dead and had even performed her last rites,” Harpal says, adding that when informed about her, he was told that “she recollects that she originally hails from Bolangir”.
Maya is among thousands who meander out of home due to mental illness compounded by personal issues, and in most cases poverty. Listless and lost, they are found several thousands of kilometres away in other cities like Chennai, which is a major transit point on railway routes.
Like Maya, Malini (name changed) too had left her home in Mumbai and ended up in a night shelter managed by the Greater Chennai Corporation, along with others like her from different parts of the country. For her, the trigger was the marriage arranged by her family against her wishes. She wanted to marry someone else, Malini, in her 20s, says. She was found walking in and around Chennai Central station for a few days before the Railway Police Force sent her to the shelter.
“I want to return, but these people are not allowing me outside,” she says, referring to the shelter authorities.
She looks at the gate, but turns away after realising it is locked. She had tried to escape once, a caretaker says. She was psychologically disturbed and scared of the new environment, but after undergoing treatment, she is now ready to return.
Venkatesh, a social worker, who has been following up on her case, says, “We will soon reunite her with her family after we get the sponsorship for her travel.”
Her parents — father, a school teacher and mother — have been informed, but they cannot afford train tickets or miss work and come to Chennai to take her home, he says.
Venkatesh has been working closely with NGOs in the city and police to help in the rescue of people for over 30 years now. One aspect of his work has been reaching out to families of people like Malini who are from other states.
“Once they are able to tell us about their homes, we get in touch with the local police or the sarpanch (village head) to track their families and inform them,” he says.
For many of the lost, it takes days, sometimes months to open up, Venkatesh explains. “I keep talking to them to make them feel comfortable confiding in me.”
Venkatesh can manage with a smattering of Hindi, even as he takes help from locals who speak Odiya or Bengali to communicate with inmates from Odisha and West Bengal.
For the last few days, he has been trying to talk to a woman in the night shelter, who was rescued a few months ago. She has been repeating only two words ‘paladiya sadak’, which he says refers to some road, but it was not quite exact.
“From the way she has draped her dupatta on her skirt and blouse, we guess she is from one of the western states (Maharashtra, Gujarat or Rajasthan). But she hasn’t been responding much, even to Hindi. She is undergoing treatment as well. She should be able to tell us more in a few days,” Venkatesh says.
Wandering, a global phenomenon
According to a paper published in the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research in 2016, there are an estimated 400,000 wandering mentally ill persons in India. Most of these can be found on the streets and in and around railway stations. And among those rescued for treatment, language and communication is a huge barrier.
Vandana Gopikumar, founder of The Banyan, an NGO that works with mentally ill people, calls such journeys a global phenomenon. She says that the stress and distress are a trigger for mental illness. “They wander and begin a journey that they are not even aware of. It is a different kind of migration. Most often, the railway routes give them the invisibility and in many cases, letting them go is also the best solution for their near and dear ones who cannot deal with their condition.”
It could be schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or even a case of depression. “Little awareness of mental health and lack of mental health care facilities are to be blamed,” she posits.
The solution for it is to develop therapy and mental health care systems in the remotest areas and that can be supported by the District Mental Health Programme (DMHP), she says, adding that the Railway Police Force should also be trained to identify people who need such help. “These would help put an end to their travel and get them the treatment within their village or town.”
On a mission for a happy reunion
In one of the corners of the State Crime Records Bureau office in Chennai, inspector AS Thahira sits with a list of case studies. They relate to people from Madhya Pradesh, one or two from Bihar and Jharkhand and one from Bengaluru. They have been lodged in homes in places like Trichy and Perambalur.
“The task is challenging when they cannot recollect the exact details of their cities,” says Thahira.
“One man at a home in Trichy has been alternating between Faridabad and New Agra, when he is asked for details of his hometown. I have been working closely with the shelter home for this case. When he is more composed and can give us exact details, we will get in touch with the police station or the village sarpanch, depending on the details,” she says.
In the age of WhatsApp, Facebook and face-scanning applications, reunions are also a lot about coordination between the police and civil society. After the family is traced, the NGOs under whom they are lodged take up the task of sending them home through sponsorships from organisations like Lions Clubs International or Rotary International, with social workers like Venkatesh accompanying them.
The Tamil Nadu Police has been uploading details of missing people on their website through the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network Systems, a plan established by the Centre.
Thahira has reunited over 150 people in the last three years, after taking charge of the task of reuniting people from other states. From scanning the list and details of inmates in over 40 shelter homes, she has visited every home to work on the cases of people from other states.
The initiative was mooted by additional director-general of police (ADGP) Seema Agarwal, who wanted her to take up the task, after a woman from Vellore was found at a Nari Niketan in Uttarakhand and reunited with her family after 13 years, in 2015. It made her think about similar people from other states who are lodged in homes and facilities in Tamil Nadu. Thahira who is well versed in Hindi was chosen for the project as she would be able to effectively communicate with them.
Thahira reckons that most such people wandering to Chennai are on account of personal issues and family feuds and a small proportion of them can be attributed to disputes over a tiny piece of land.
The Tamil Nadu Police website has a separate page called Found by NGO with the details of NGOs where people from other states have been lodged.
ADGP Agarwal says that the idea is to have a happy reunion for all of them. “They could have moved on with life, remarried or just assumed that the person is not going to return. However, we have not seen anyone turning down the offer to reunite. We have only witnessed emotional scenes of relief and happiness. In fact, I remember in the first case of the woman from Vellore, her son said she used to take care of him when he was a child and that he was now willing to don her role and care for her.”
Tales of abuse
Vandana says that men and women are both vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse, like in the case of Meera (name changed), who originally hails from Varanasi, and was reunited two years ago. In 2014, she was rescued from outside Egmore Railway Station by Venkatesh and Mary Thomas from Selvi Memorial, an NGO.
When sent for a medical examination, they found that she was pregnant. “She delivered a baby girl who died after six months,” Venkatesh says. “When we were able to contact her family a few months after the incident, we told her husband about it. He was shocked but he wanted her back.”
Inspector Thahira says that such acceptance is rare but when they happen, it makes their exercise worth the efforts. “We cannot force them to accept them. They are poor and uneducated people in most cases. Some of them even tell us they sent them away deliberately because they were a burden,” she says.
However, social workers believe that the acceptance is actually due to the fear of the police.
“That is why we follow up on the cases to ensure that they are taken care of and in the case of a person who needs to continue treatment, we want to ensure that they are not left on the streets again,” says Thahira.
Back in Bolangir, Maya is now admitted to a home where she is also receiving treatment. Her father and brother have died and no one knows where her daughter and her husband are.